MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas

MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-3 ● Zachary Lopes (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1771 (42:44)

This is a most welcome recording of Robert Muczynski’s three compelling piano sonatas—the first to appear since Laurel released its two-CD set of the composer’s own performances of his complete solo piano music. I should mention that though the latter recordings were originally issued on LP during the early 1980s, they were re-issued on CD (along with several chamber works) in 2000. Those Laurel CDs are still very much available, and admirers of Muczynski’s music will definitely want them too. Since Laurel CDs are not marketed through many of the usual channels, the most reliable way to access them is directly through the label’s website (

My colleague Myron Silberstein has done a typically astute job of describing Muczynski’s music, so I will discuss it in more general terms. I have often characterized Muczynski’s style, which remained largely consistent throughout his compositional career, as a kind of romantic neo-classicism. That is, it is modest, understated, devoid of extramusical encumbrance, its substance abstract and developed with great concision. Most of his attention was focused on music for solo piano and for small chamber combinations. There are remarkably few orchestral, choral, or vocal works in his catalog. On the other hand, his music is very appealing, with lively, vigorous rhythmic drive, propelled by syncopation and irregular meters, with an underlying lyricism and a subtle attention to mood. Muczynski’s craftsmanship is meticulous, and his taste is always impeccable. To describe his piano music as comparable in many ways to the piano music of Samuel Barber will give readers a sense of what to expect.

Muczynski was a professional-caliber pianist and his three sonatas (from 1957, 1966, and 1974 respectively) are imposing, highly demanding works that reveal a masterly command of the full range of virtuoso piano technique. The Sonata No. 1 comprises two movements, the first darkly dramatic, followed by driving, rhythmically propulsive material, and the second light-hearted and more extroverted. The Sonata No. 2 is a fine work, but—it must be admitted—is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Barber Sonata in many ways. I will argue that this doesn’t detract from its own individual merit, but knowledgeable listeners are bound to notice, so there’s no point in avoiding it. The Sonata No. 2, the most ambitious of the three, stands alongside the sonatas of Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and Peter Mennin—all composed during the 1960s—among America’s most distinguished works in that medium. The Sonata No. 3 is more lyrical than its predecessors, but all three works are clearly the fruits of a unified, integrated sensibility.

Zachary Lopes is an American-trained pianist, currently based in Kentucky. He has toured widely, featuring the works of Muczynski on many of his programs. He has this music well in hand and conveys its virtues with impressive conviction. Compared with Muczynski’s own recordings, Lopes’s renditions show somewhat greater confidence and polish, while Albany’s rich, spacious sonic ambience exceeds what was possible on an analog recording made during the early 1980s. That said, it would be unfair to assert that this new release supplants Muczynski’s own performances, in view of the composer’s mastery of his own music and the additional repertoire offered on the Laurel discs.

It is worth noting that many commentators have regarded the period 1955 through 1980 as the artistically barren nadir of American musical composition, a time when serialism and other experimental approaches attracted the majority of attention to new music, much of which has proven to be stillborn. But a remarkable quantity of music of the highest quality appeared during that period, by composers who refused to relinquish their belief in music as a means of communication from one soul to others who resonate with its spirit. Much of this music is only now gradually being discovered and recognized. There were more such composers than is generally realized, but four in particular—Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski—faced the difficult challenge of attempting to launch careers as composers during the period when such humanistic values faced the most flagrant disregard. These four virtual contemporaries fought in their own individual ways against an obscurity that continues to veil their contributions to a large extent. They produced much of their most distinguished music during that quarter-century identified above. Interestingly, Argento—a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is probably the one who has enjoyed the highest acclaim and visibility. On the other hand, it is probably Muczynski, pursuing his career off the grid in Arizona, who has drawn the least attention among musicologists and critics of the compositional scene. Yet it is also Muczynski whose music has probably been performed more widely and more frequently than that of the other three. His low profile can be attributed partly to the complete absence of “blockbusters” within his output. Pieces for flute and piano or saxophone and piano don’t often make the headlines, but ask a flutist or saxophonist about Muczynski and you are likely to elicit an enthusiastic reaction. (Especially perplexing is the fact that commentators and performers continue to decry the paucity of works for piano trio, while Muczynski’s three brilliant works for this medium remain largely in the dark. [I must draw the attention of curious listeners to Centaur CRC-2634, which features stupendous performances of his piano trios, along with his string trio.])

Today stylistic strictures have largely disappeared, and composers are free to pursue a wide variety of approaches. Listeners will derive much pleasure from pursuing the works of these composers who never abandoned their commitments to traditional musical values. This fine recording of Muczynski’s piano sonatas provides such an opportunity.

KABELAC: Symphonies Nos. 1-8

KABELÁČ  Symphonies Nos. 1-8 —  Marko Ivanović, cond; Prague RSO  —  SUPRAPHON SU 4202-2 (4 CDs: 3:58:23)

Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979) is generally recognized within the Czech Republic as their most important composer from the generation following Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). However, his reputation seems barely to have extended beyond his homeland. There are a number of reasons for this, rooted in the political shifts that occurred during the years of his maturity. Kabeláč’s main composition teacher was Karel Boleslav Jirák, with whom he studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1931. In addition to composing, Kabeláč served as music director of the Prague Radio, and as the chief conductor of their orchestra. His mature compositions began to appear during the late 1930s, shortly before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. The following year they had established control of the country, and instituted their anti-Semitic policies. Kabeláč had married a Jewish woman, whom the Nazis demanded that he divorce. He refused, whereupon he was relieved of his position with the Prague Radio, while facing a complete boycott of performances of his music. Upon the War’s end in 1945 Kabeláč enjoyed a brief period of freedom, but in 1948 Czechoslovakia was seized again, this time by the Soviet Union, which attempted to impose its own notions of artistic expression. Kabeláč was not about to accept the imposition of ideologically derived aesthetic principles, but he managed to continue composing as he wished, though his works did not win the favor of the prevailing government, which regarded him with suspicion. But his music did attract the attention of the Czech musical community—especially the portion that was concerned with new music. During the period from the late 1950s until 1968 there was some relaxation of Soviet artistic dogmas; Kabeláč enjoyed a modicum of freedom, teaching at the Prague Conservatory, while continuing to compose. It was during this time that his music won a wider degree of recognition, with more frequent performances and recordings of some of his major works by such eminent figures as the conductor Karel Ančerl, who became a vigorous champion. But in 1968 the Soviets invaded Prague and replaced the relatively liberal policies of Alexander Dubček with a more repressive regime. From this time until his death in 1979, Kabeláč once again faced the complete suppression of his identity as a composer. His recordings were taken out of circulation, as were the scores to his works, and performances disappeared almost completely. Perhaps the highpoint of his international career occurred in 1971: Two French musicians—conductor Pierre Stoll and musicologist Paul Nardin—had become extremely interested in the music of Kabeláč; they arranged for a concert in Strasbourg that would be devoted entirely to his works, of which the centerpiece would be the premiere of the newly-commissioned Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons.” The concert took place on June 15, 1971, but the Czech government refused to grant Kabeláč permission to attend.

In view of the foregoing, this new release, featuring recordings of all eight Kabeláč symphonies, in brilliant, sensitive performances by the Prague Radio Orchestra under the direction of Marko Ivanović, is most welcome. For most listeners it will be an initial exposure to a representative sample of the works of one of 20th-century Europe’s most significant composers.

Kabeláč’s music is no walk in the park. It is all serious stuff—grim, bleak, and brooding, often breaking out into a relentless physical brutality. There is no levity. While listening to this music, it is hard not to be constantly reminded of the overwhelming adversities, both personal and political, that he endured throughout his career, although regarding his work as nothing but a statement of political resistance or protest is simplistic, to say the least. His eight symphonies (1941-1970) serve as a representative longitudinal survey of his work, illustrating the considerable evolution of his compositional voice over the course of that period, as well as the expressive elements that remained consistent throughout his career. One remarkable feature of his symphonic canon is the fact that each work is scored for a different array of performing forces. Perhaps the most prominent and consistent musical elements of his style are his frequent use of small melodic intervals, and emphatic, unwavering rhythmic patterns that evoke a sense of militant determination. There is also a constant emphasis on tonic minor triads or chords built upon minor triads (this became less obvious in the later works). At times this emphasis on the tonic is hammered to the point of an almost masochistic numbness. Initially, these minor triads appeared in a clearly tonal context, although as he matured they were treated with greater chromatic freedom. Unrelated minor triads often pivot via common tones. Much of the music is slow in tempo, although contrasting fast movements typically utilize triplet subdivisions.

A good deal of grim orchestral music emanated from Eastern Europe during the middle years of the 20th century. Much of it is gray and faceless. In contrast, Kabeláč had something very strong and powerful to say; his works are statements of great metaphysical and existential import. I believe that he stands among the greatest composers of his time and place.

Kabeláč’s Symphony No. 1 was composed during World War II, in 1941. In one sense it is a work very much of its time. It is scored for an orchestra of only strings and percussion—a scoring that calls to mind the Double Concerto (1938) for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani of Bohuslav Martinů. But more than this work, the symphony resembles other, roughly contemporaneous music by composers like Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger—a sort of freely chromatic neo-classicism to which many European composers of the time were drawn, with a more complex and dissonant harmonic language than is found in many of Kabeláč’s later works. Yet despite its affinity with general musical currents of the time, many of the elements noted above as consistent stylistic features of the composer can be found in embryonic form in this work. It is a large, serious statement—stern yet consistently compelling, with an unremitting sense of suppressed intensity that builds to tremendous epiphanies of anguish, although it finally achieves an affirmative conclusion. The work must be regarded among the great European symphonies of the World War II period.

The Symphony No. 2 was also begun during the War, but it was largely completed after the War’s end, in 1946. This is probably the symphony of Kabeláč that is most accessible to a general audience—a long (nearly 40-minute) post-romantic statement not likely to alienate anyone comfortable with, say, Shostakovich’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony. In fact, if there is one composer who might be cited as a somewhat kindred figure, it is probably Shostakovich, though the latter was far more prolific and broader in his range of expression, while Kabeláč’s music is more concentrated in form and structure. (Kabeláč—like the American Peter Mennin—was one of those composers whose entire output is dedicated to a particular expressive attitude that remains constant throughout, although their means of articulating that attitude may have evolved significantly.) Actual audible similarities to the music of Shostakovich are few, but it is in this work that they are likely to be noticed. Yet despite such moments, those listeners who have gained some familiarity with the music of Kabeláč will find his characteristic features far more salient than occasional reminiscences of others.

Like much of Kabeláč’s music, the work begins with a bold assertion of force that rarely subsides. The second movement features the alto saxophone in a prominent role, suggesting the voice of vulnerable humanity attempting to be heard amid the clamor of a ruthlessly inhumane machine. The third movement is perhaps the most impressive of all—utterly uncompromising in its expressive intensity. No. 2 is a work of overwhelming power, and again warrants recognition among the most extraordinarily eloquent symphonic statements to emerge from Europe during the 1940s.

I have often observed that many—perhaps most—composers have a “sweet spot”—a period when their musical language has achieved its greatest clarity, and when they produced their most representative and fully realized compositions. For Kabeláč this period was the 1950s, when he produced most of his greatest works, one after another. One of these is a symphonic passacaglia with the intriguing title, The Mystery of Time. Possibly because of its title, possibly because of its striking musical quality, this has become the composer’s most celebrated work, although there has not been a recording since Ančerl’s monaural account from around 1960. (More about this later.)

The Symphony No. 3 dates from this period, occupying Kabeláč from 1948 until 1957. The symphony is scored for brass, organ, and timpani, and represents a stark distillation of Kabeláč’s compositional style. During this time most of the musical elements and devices that linked him with contemporaneous compositional currents have been shed, leaving only the most idiosyncratic elements of his creative personality. This work, shorter in duration than its two predecessors despite comprising four movements instead of their respective three, is largely funereal in tone, from its intensely ominous opening until a stark, concluding brass chorale that suggests a sense of unyielding oppression. The language is quite a bit simpler than that found in the two earlier symphonies: There is relatively little harmonic dissonance and less textural complexity, while the obsessive focus on the tonic comes to the fore. During the period when Kabeláč was composing this symphony he also wrote two Fantasias for organ—among his finest works—and some of their material found its way into this symphony. It is one of his most characteristic works; while some listeners may find its militant obstinacy unyielding, relentless, and somewhat crude, others will be impressed by its indomitable power and sense of violent rage, suppressed under great duress. During the late 1980s Supraphon released a recording of this work (SU 0035-2 031), featuring members of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Libor Pešek. That was a superb recorded performance that is no less stunning than the one heard here.

The Symphony No. 4 is subtitled, “Camerata,” and is scored for chamber orchestra. It is apparently the composer’s most frequently performed symphony, most likely because of the smaller forces required. Completed in 1958, it is lighter in texture and spirit than any of the preceding symphonies, and follows the format of a sonata da chiesa. Still tenaciously tonal, it serves as the “neo-classical” entry in Kabeláč’s symphonic canon, with even some hints of Martinů-like exuberance. But these words are all relative, as is immediately apparent from the funereal opening movement. The second movement, however, is possibly one of the composer’s most cheerful creations, although the martial spirit never disappears completely. It is one of Kabeláč’s fast movements with triplet subdivisions. The slow movement is eerie and ominous, while the finale resembles the second movement somewhat, maintaining a more “objective” tone than the composer’s norm. In 1960 Supraphon released a recording (SU 3020-2 911) that featured the conductorless Prague Chamber Orchestra. That performance served its purpose, although it is far outclassed by this new recording from the perspectives of both playing and recording quality.

In 1960 appeared the Symphony No. 5, “Drammatica,” a 40-minute work that features a soprano vocalise with full symphony orchestra. Evidently this was Kabeláč’s own favorite among his symphonies, elaborating the notion of the human being crying out in defiance of oppression by an inhuman force. (This is similar to the use of the saxophone in the second movement of the Second Symphony.) The piece begs comparison with the popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki. My own preference is for the Kabeláč, as a more deeply penetrating work, but others may feel differently. One might say that Górecki sheds tears, while Kabeláč grits his teeth. In this work the musical language has become harsher and more dissonant, although the strongly tonal emphasis continues to prevail, despite more frequent modulations. Comprising four movements, the work opens with the composer’s characteristically intense seriousness. The second movement is like a scherzo, displaying Kabeláč’s propensity for rapid triplet subdivisions. The third movement displays a somber, melancholy beauty, while the finale reflects the suppressed rage that the composer evoked so effectively. Although there are long stretches when the vocalise is silent, there is a varied range of expression in the writing for soprano, without any sort of coloratura that might draw attention to the singer as a virtuoso, though her role is certainly difficult enough. Much of the credit for this belongs to the soprano herself, Pavla Vykopalová, who is able to call upon a subtle range of emotion and tone color. This will be especially notable to those who have heard the recording of the premiere, which took place in April, 1961, featuring soprano Libuše Domanínská—highly regarded in her time—with the Czech Philharmonic under the direction of Karel Ančerl. On this recording, released in 1993 on Praga PR 255 000, the soprano reveals a much less versatile instrument, which becomes strident at times, to a point approaching unlistenability. This new recording makes a much more convincing case for the work.

The Symphony No. 6, “Concertante,” followed in 1962. This work is scored for clarinet solo and orchestra, including two pianos. What is most remarkable is how the essential metaphysical content of Kabeláč’s music remains consistent and immediately recognizable, despite the considerably increased complexity of his treatment of harmony, texture, and tonality, not to mention the largely obliterated metrical pulse. One interesting feature is the use of a pre-recorded tape of sustained minor-seconds played by a muted string ensemble, which runs throughout the entire second movement. This device seems to underline the minor-second as a primary thematic element of the work. At times the symphony suggests a clarinet concerto, but there are long passages during which the instrument is silent. The solo instrument’s contribution is often melismatic, utilizing exotic modal scales, which were a longstanding source of fascination for the composer. But, as with the soprano in the preceding symphony, the instrument’s role always elaborates the essential expressive content, rather than drawing attention to the player’s virtuosity. On the whole, the work is relatively light in texture, without the heavy-handed bludgeoning that some might find hard to take in others of the composer’s works. There is also less driving forward motion; the second movement is especially static in effect.

It is especially difficult to write about the Symphony No. 7, as it centers around spoken passages, which are not even included in the accompanying program notes in Czech, not to mention in English translation. However the notes indicate that the text is drawn from the Gospel according to John and the Book of Revelation. According to program notes to a recent performance, written by Klára Mühlová and Vladimir Maňas, the text “does not feature a single verb, remaining a stream of bare meanings. The composer emphasizes the symbolic nature of words, leaving the making of connections between the propositions to the combining of music with words, and the explanation to the listener.” The work falls into three sections, entitled: 1) Eternity; 2) Humanity; 3) Eternity. In this work Kabeláč’s language has become totally dissonant and largely atonal. There is little sense of metrical pulse, and much cluster harmony, yet there is still a strong tonal sense. But most important, even without a printed text, the music conveys a sense of intense emotionality. The work was commissioned for the 1968 Prague Spring Festival, where it received its premiere. Kabeláč said, “The Seventh Symphony is my musical and philosophical credo.”

Kabeláč’s final symphony, subtitled “Antiphons” was commissioned as the centerpiece of the 1971 Strasbourg concert devoted entirely to his music. He scored the work for soprano solo, double mixed chorus, organ, and percussion ensemble, and selected the venue for the concert—St. Paul’s cathedral—specifically for the antiphonal effects that this Gothic cathedral made possible. As Kabeláč subsequently wrote to Karel Ančerl, “The symphony was written for a church, not perhaps as sacred music, but for its spatial possibilities …” By now Kabeláč’s language had become largely atonal and extremely dissonant, with some use of indeterminacy. But the emotional impact of the work follows so closely along the lines that his previous works had been pursuing that it is not hard to understand its expressive intentions.

The work is based on a famous episode from the Book of Daniel (Chapter V, verses 24-28). A message appears on the wall of Belshazzar’s Palace: mene tekel ufarsin. This is said to mean, roughly, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away.” These ominous words are counterbalanced in the text by three more uplifting words: amen,hosanna, and alleluia; all are repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. As Pierre-E. Barbier and Paul Nardin wrote: “The last word sung, shouted, alleluia, is seen by some as an invocation to the Lord, a redeeming supplication, a heroic conquest of joy. Others, referring to the biographical particulars of the composer’s life, see the ultimate and long tenuto of the soprano as a final leap to avoid the void, hell … oblivion.” What occurred to me immediately was that this final statement in praise of God might have been, in 1971, Kabeláč’s ultimate act of defiance against the political regime.

The Symphony No. 8 falls into nine sections: five main sections, each separated by an organ interlude. The soprano soloist—Lucie Silkenová on this recording, who does an extraordinary job with a terribly taxing role—is required to sing absolute pitches, while the chorus sings relative pitches as well as microtonal passages. Percussion is used very actively, while the organ’s role is totally dissonant and atonal, yet conveys strongly emotional messages. Following an arch-form design, the fifth section is the climax of the symphony, and reaches a point, led by the solo soprano, verging on total hysteria. Essentially, the work is a stark drama of musical gestures, abandoning any semblance of classical moderation of any kind. It is the kind of piece—like many of those by Allan Pettersson, for example—that may be totally sincere, effective, and convincing in depicting an emotional attitude or state of mind, yet it may not find its way through one’s audio system very often.

In 1993 Praga Productions released a CD comprising the entire 1971 Strasbourg concert (PR 255 004—reviewed in 17:3). In addition to the symphony, included are two riveting Fantasias for organ, four Preludes for organ, and Eight Inventions for percussion. While the premiere performance of the symphony cannot compete with the refinement of this new performance or with its sonic impact, the earlier CD (very hard to locate now) documents an event of great significance to those for whom this composer holds appeal.

This new Supraphon release is an imperative acquisition for all those interested in European symphonic music of the twentieth century. The performances are all splendid, as is the sound quality. But I do have a few quibbles: One is that as delighted as I am to have this comprehensive release of Kabeláč’s symphonies, I fear that the prospect of a four-CD set is likely to overwhelm the non-Czech music lover who has never heard a note by the composer. Most people, I would think, would be more comfortable sampling one or two symphonies on a single CD, to see whether the music holds appeal for them. I would think that releasing the discs separately would have made more marketing sense. And speaking of marketing sense, how can Supraphon include two works with texts, without providing the texts, even in Czech? And third, as mentioned earlier, the work that has really begun to make an international reputation for Kabeláč is the orchestral passacaglia entitled, The Mystery of Time. Whether releasing one disc at a time, or the whole set of symphonies together, Supraphon might have considered adding a couple of “fillers,” including that one work, which is really more stunning than any of the symphonies, as fine as they are. In fact, I consider it one of the symphonic masterpieces of mid- 20th century European music, along with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra and some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, Holmboe, and Pettersson.

Some readers may be interested in the following personal recollections: I first encountered the music of Kabeláč in 1972. The all-Kabeláč concert in Strasbourg that the composer had been prevented from attending had taken place the preceding year. This concert was probably the most auspicious presentation of Kabeláč’s music during his lifetime, and perhaps ever since. What made it so auspicious was the fact that the concert was recorded and subsequently broadcast all over the world. In 1972 it was broadcast on New York City’s WRVR (whose music director at the time was the late Paul Snook). I happened to catch most of the concert simply by accident, having tuned in at a fortuitous moment. I was instantly struck by the music; the sense of an extraordinary compositional personality was apparent to me immediately. The next time I had the occasion to see Paul, I told him of my having discovered Kabeláč through that broadcast. Though he himself was not as taken with the music as I was, he loaned me his recording of the composer’s most notable work, The Mystery of Time. This piece clinched it for me: I felt that I had discovered an important compositional voice, and set about trying to acquire as many of his works on recordings and live-performance tapes as I could, and the more I heard, the more impressed I was.

In 1976 I was about to take my first trip to Europe, and decided that one item on the agenda would be a visit to Prague to meet Kabeláč. I wrote to the Czech Music Information Center, and expressed my interest in meeting the composer. Young and naïve about Eastern European musical politics, I was surprised when I received a gracious response from the Information Center, stating that they would be happy to receive me, and to direct me to other composers they thought would be more appropriate. I didn’t know just how to respond, but it was Kabeláč I was interested in meeting—not composers of their choosing with whose music I was totally unfamiliar. So I just pursued my plan, figuring I’d show up at this Information Center, and see what I could work out. When I appeared, I was curtly told that no one could facilitate my meeting Kabeláč, and if I wasn’t interested in the composers whom they had selected, they couldn’t help me. I did not expect this sort of reception, nor the general lack of cooperation everywhere I turned. I started to feel very intimidated, and was almost ready to just leave the country, when I passed a phone booth, and decided to simply look up Kabeláč in the phone directory, and call him on my own, without giving thought to matters of language. (I think I just figured anyone would be able to speak some English.) So I called him, and he answered the phone, and I introduced myself as an American musicologist and critic. In fact he spoke hardly any English, but somehow I managed to convey to him that I wanted to meet him, and he agreed to meet me that afternoon in the café at Smetana Hall.

We both showed up at the appointed time. At this point he was 68 years old, and displayed a very severe demeanor. It was clear that his English was so limited that communicating was going to be very difficult. But fortunately, his daughter soon arrived; she was more proficient in English and was able to act as interpreter. I began by expressing my enthusiasm for his music, and was surprised that he seemed to take this for granted, apparently assuming that his music was well known in the States. I told him how I had discovered his music by hearing that broadcast of the Strasbourg concert. This was very surprising to him; he had no idea that that concert had been broadcast so widely, and he grumbled about the fact that he had never received a cent from it. Then I began to ask him questions about his thoughts regarding trends in contemporary music internationally, other Czech composers, etc. But to each of these questions, he answered in heavily accented English, “Aha! You are a critic; you try to trick me. No, I will not answer these questions.” No matter how much I tried to reassure him of my innocent interest, it was clear that he was not going to open up to me in any way. Finally after about an hour or so, I thanked him and his daughter for meeting with me, and we said good-bye. I was extremely disappointed by the fruitlessness of the encounter, got into my rented car, and drove out of Czechoslovakia as fast as I could.  Later I learned that he had died three years later.

After I returned home I described my meeting with Kabeláč to my friends, as well as to people I encountered—over the following several years—who were either Czech themselves or of Czech background. I also pursued further research on my own. I gleaned from all this Kabeláč’s unfortunate personal history and the overwhelming challenges he had faced throughout his career. I realized that he had shown considerable bravery in agreeing to meet with me at all, without the authorization of government officials; and I learned that his paranoia was totally understandable under the circumstances. All this made his bitterness and suspiciousness far more understandable, while also shedding light on the violent intensity of most of his music.

GIANNINI: The Medead and songs by other composers

GIANNINI: The Medead ● Irene Jordan (sop); Henry Sopkin, cond; Atlanta SO (World  Premiere: 10/60); Paul Paray, cond; Detroit SO (1/4/62); songs by other composers ● JORDAN YSL T-343 (mono, analog); 2 CDs: 118:01 (Available from

I am grateful to Joel Flegler for permitting me, as critic-emeritus, to emerge from my retirement lair in order to submit this review of a release of singular importance. The Medead, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s, rather than a freshly recorded performance by one of today’s leading sopranos and with up-to-date sonic felicities. But now that the work is available in this incarnation, perhaps other performers will be inspired to provide fresh new renditions. The Medead is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his Salome and Elektra vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy. Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes. But as great a work as I consider The Medead to be, it is not for everybody. If the notion of a hyper-intense, post-Wagnerian composition for soprano and orchestra makes you want to head for the hills, that is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family: His father and two of his sisters were professional singers of considerable repute. He himself enjoyed a modest reputation during the 1930s and 40s as a composer of highly romantic operas—many in a buffa vein—as well as concert songs (his “Tell Me, O Blue, Blue Sky” was performed by Eileen Farrell, Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and many others, and still appears frequently on recital programs today). He also wrote a number of utilitarian instrumental works, many of them lending a warmly romantic touch to Baroque forms. Such compositions, among them his Concerto Grosso, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, and Variations on a Cantus Firmus for piano solo, contributed to his reputation as a staunchly conservative traditionalist who created a body of benignly academic works of no great import. His most successful opera was a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Giannini’s craftsmanship was reputed to be meticulous, and he taught dozens of budding composers while serving on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and, ultimately, as founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts. During the late 1950s and early 60s he shrewdly fed the voracious appetite for original works for wind band, promoted by William D. Revelli in Michigan and Frederick Fennell in Rochester. With the intense irony endemic to the classical music world, these band works are the chief source of Giannini’s reputation today, and one of these, his Symphony No. 3, is among the cornerstones of the symphonic wind band repertoire. But what has remained much less well known is that during the early 1960s the composer, diagnosed with terminal heart disease and devastated by the failure of his second marriage, began to explore more serious—often Classical—subjects, treating them with a darker, harsher harmonic language and an astringent, less comforting lyricism than he had employed before, as well as tighter, more complex formal structures. Among these late works are most of the composer’s masterpieces, including his Symphony No. 5, Psalm 130 for double bass and orchestra, the dramatic monologues The Medead and Antigone, the opera Edipus, and the late piece for band Variations and Fugue. Some of these works have yet to be played even once; others are performed only occasionally. But among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, The Medead is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.

The Medead was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned “foundation style” works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.

What qualities lead me to value The Medead so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent; equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention; and, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a “pastorale” section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.

While the initial appearance of The Medead—in two different performances—is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc—which contains virtually no documentation other than the dates of performance—is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what seems to be the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote, “What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’? The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of Peter Grimes,… had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, The Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips.’…. Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 17 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence…. In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.… Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say.” John W. Lambert added, “Jordan’s approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder.”

What is most striking about the soprano we hear in The Medead is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch—and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra—a far less imposing ensemble than it is today—scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony—also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today—enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of The Medead, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.

The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight—the Schubert in particular—her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.

In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited. 

LESHNOFF Double Concerto. Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush ● Michael Stern, cond; IRIS Orchestra; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Roberto Díaz (va) ● NAXOS 8.559670 (56:33)

Turning 40 this year, Jonathan Leshnoff is proving to be one of the most gifted traditionalist composers of his generation. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is a graduate of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and cites as his most important teachers Moshe Cotel and Thomas Benjamin. He seems to have settled in Baltimore, and is currently composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and on the faculty of Towson University.

This is Naxos’s second release devoted to the music of Leshnoff. I reviewed its predecessor favorably in Fanfare 34:3; that one featured a violin concerto and a string quartet. Looking back at that review, I see that I wrote about his Violin Concerto, “Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing as I listened to this CD, except that I find this more recent release even more appealing by quite a margin. Like the earlier CD, each piece falls into a slightly different stylistic category, yet each remains satisfying in its own way.

Almost immediately after composing his Violin Concerto, Leshnoff was asked to write a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola. He completed the work later the same year, in 2007. This ambitious four-movement concerto grabbed me immediately. Its style is thoroughly traditional and clearly tonal in the late-romantic sense. That is, the listener will hear nothing that couldn’t have been written by a neo-romantic composer 50 years ago. This is, of course, a bold and courageous posture for a composer to take, because not only does he place himself in direct comparison with many celebrated figures of the recent past, but his chosen language makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid the “sounds like” references that so many critics use to diminish the stature of traditionalist composers and their works. I must emphasize that “sounds like” references in this review are provided solely to give the reader a frame of reference that might facilitate his forming a mental impression of what the music sounds like, not a criticism or accusation of “derivativeness.”

Lasting nearly half an hour, the Double Concerto is a serious, passionate work in four movements. Its opening movement is fraught with a grim, heartfelt pathos strongly reminiscent of Ernest Bloch. The second movement is a lively, exciting scherzo with no shortage of lyrical moments. The third movement is a mysterious nocturne that returns to the somber cast of the opening. The finale is a perpetual-motion affair that calls Shostakovich to mind; despite its continuous vigor, it ends the work on a subdued note. The solo performances, featuring violinist Charles Wetherbee (who excelled in the aforementioned Violin Concerto) and violist Roberto Díaz are truly masterly, while the orchestra, under the direction of its founder Michael Stern, provides the solid, confident support one might expect of a far more seasoned ensemble. The IRIS Orchestra, formed in 2000 as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee, is extraordinarily fine, and Stern appears to be a committed advocate of Leshnoff’s music.

Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Stern, and is subtitled, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” It was completed in 2004—earlier than the Double Concerto—but is more obviously a work of the turn of the 21st century, in its emphasis on sonority and gesture reminiscent of the music of Joseph Schwantner, as well as in its passages of rhythmic stasis. The work comprises five movements, played without pause, and is supposedly a “Brotherhood of Man” sort of statement. Lately I find myself on a campaign against references to extramusical content and meaning that is not borne out by the music itself. I have no particular criticisms of Leshnoff’s symphony, which I enjoyed greatly—I just think that its pretense of “[speaking] to all humanity in an uplifting way” is irrelevant. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that produces a great sense of anticipation that is released in the energetic movement that follows. The third movement—the centerpiece—is the longest, and after an eerie opening, becomes more hymnlike, with quotations from earlier religious music, including Gregorian Chant (presumably for purposes of spiritual uplift), before returning to its initial mysterious character. The fourth movement also includes quotations and, like the second, provides rapid activity through swirling gestures. The finale, “Resolution,” is solemn and chant-like, bringing the work—like the Double Concerto—to a subdued conclusion. Despite my carping about extramusical meaning, this is a satisfying work with potentially broad appeal, demonstrating that there is still plenty meaningful to say within the symphonic genre.

Rush is a relatively short, very animated work dating from 2008 that partakes of the post-minimalist manner of John Adams and Michael Torke. It is quite successful in generating the kind of excited exuberance for which such pieces seem to strive, although Rush offers quieter moments as well.

As indicated earlier, the performances presented here are superb, and the music provides just less than an hour of fully enjoyable listening.

LEE PUI MING She Comes to Shore

LEE PUI MING: SHE COMES TO SHORE ● Lee Pui Ming (pn); Jed Gaylin, cond; Bay-Atlantic Symphony ● INNOVA 796 (64:20)
to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.… she. shimmers

Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.

However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.

The “big piece” here is the 23-minute Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinati in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.

The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances, others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano, and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.

HOLST Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds.” Walt Whitman Overture. A Hampshire Suite (orch. G. Jacob). The Perfect Fool. Scherzo

HOLST Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds.” Walt Whitman Overture. A Hampshire Suite (orch. G. Jacob). The Perfect Fool. Scherzo ● Douglas Bostock, cond; Munich SO ● SCANDINAVIAN CLASSICS 220559-205 (65:04)

This is a reissue of a CD originally released on Classico and was reviewed with somewhat muted enthusiasm by Peter Rabinowitz in 23:6.

Gustav Holst was a most unusual composer, with several different creative personalities that don’t share much in common. His oddness is only partly explained by the particularly uneven representation of his work in the repertoire. A member of the same generation as Vaughan Williams and so many other English composers known disparagingly as “the cowpat school,” which might be described more objectively as those composers who found inspiration in the folk music of England and its environs and couched it in a pastoral language with roots in Impressionism. And, yes, Holst certainly falls into that group by dint of a number of works that share those attributes. But his best-known work, The Planets (1914-16)—certainly one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century—reveals that side of his creative personality only in the “trio” melody from the “Jupiter” movement. Perhaps the popularity of this work—indeed, its over-familiarity—has led to a somewhat patronizing attitude toward it, and with it a failure to acknowledge the novelty of conception, original stylistic juxtapositions, and expressive breadth it displays with great eloquence, not to mention its extraordinarily imaginative orchestration. In fact, aside from that Elgarian tune in “Jupiter,” there is very little about the work that links it to a national “school” or to the music of other composers (although some claim to hear reminiscences that elude me), and that, along with a certain visionary sense of impersonal detachment, make his music quite difficult to characterize. Aside from A Hampshire Suite, that is the case with much of the remaining music on this disc, although its level of interest must be said to be uneven. Missing from this program is the composer’s fascination with Oriental literature and philosophy—another element of his heterogeneous stylistic range.

Perhaps the least interesting piece is the aforementioned A Hampshire Suite, as it is merely an orchestral arrangement done by Gordon Jacob of Holst’s classic Second Suite in F for wind band. Certainly delightful in its own right, it can readily be grouped with similar pieces by Vaughan Williams, not to mention Gordon Jacob himself, along with the many other English composers who found inspiration in their indigenous folk music.

Of interest largely to those who enjoy and are familiar with only Holst’s best-known works are two pieces dating from 1899-1900, when the composer had yet to find his own voice: the Walt Whitman Overture and the ambitious four-movement Symphony in F, subtitled “The Cotswolds,” after the beautiful English hills. The Overture is remarkable for its stylistic anonymity, as well as for the absence of any suggestion of the spirit of Walt Whitman. The language might be described as “international” in style, like that of so many pre-Elgar English composers, such as Sir Arthur Sullivan (Holst was 17 years younger than Elgar), with suggestions of Wagner (both early and late), resulting in moments of both bombast and banality.

The Symphony in F is cut from much the same cloth, although looming far above the rest of it is the slow movement—more than a third of the work’s duration—subtitled “In Memoriam William Morris,” dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite artist who had died just three years earlier. This elegy is quite beautifully moving, almost Tchaikovskian in its mournfulness, and more complex harmonically than the rest of the work. Yet despite the evident sincerity of its feeling, there are numerous indications of immaturity. The three other movements are surprisingly ordinary, with some suggestions of Dvořák, and even Raff—but with nowhere near the musical or emotional complexity of what, say, Elgar was writing at the time.

But exemplifying Holst’s mature musical personality is the ballet suite drawn from The Perfect Fool, variously described as an opera and as incidental music, dating from 1918. This is probably the composer’s best-known music, after The Planets, which the music frequently calls to mind,and the pieces based on English folksong. With extraordinarily brilliant orchestration, it is a marvelously imaginative and individualistic work—captivating yet strangely impersonal in its exuberance. Perusing the Fanfare archive to see how my colleagues have characterized this music, I discovered that, while the piece appears on many recordings, its character and style is not really addressed by any of the reviewers, confirming my observation about the elusiveness of this quite delightful music.

But the most interesting music of all is the Scherzo, apparently the last music composed by Holst, shortly before his untimely death in 1934 at age 60. This six-minute morsel leads one to deeply regret that he did not live to complete the symphony for which this movement was intended. The brief, unsigned liner notes say nothing about this piece, but it is strangely jaunty, in an off-center sort of way that does not identify it with any national school. Most notable is its highly flexible and inventive treatment of rhythm, which accounts for its off-center effect.

Douglas Bostock is an English conductor whose career has mostly been located in Germany. The performances here are generally quite fine, although I found some of the tempos in the Cotswolds Symphony to be a little on the sluggish side.

In conclusion, let me say that I encourage those listeners who appreciate The Planets as more than a mere audio spectacular to look more deeply into Holst’s output. I think that they will discover a highly intriguing creative voice.


BECKMAN Big Muddy ● Richard Stoltzman (cl); Patrick Beckman (pn) ● NAVONA NV5815 (enhanced CD), 40:35

Patrick Beckman is an Illinois-born and –based pianist and composer. One of those musicians who has endeavored to keep his age pretty well hidden, he is, I suspect, somewhere in his early 60s. Although he has been active in the academic world, his musical involvements have been quite varied, embracing works for the musical theater, music for dance, and  rhythm and blues, and as well as more “straight” classical pieces. Big Muddy is an ambitious five-movement suite for clarinet and piano composed in 2008, and inspired by and based on musical styles that originated around the Mississippi basin. The result is a hybrid of jazz styles and techniques articulated with the composure and balance provided by a more classical foundation. Although this is not the kind of music to which I typically turn for pleasure, I found Big Muddy quite enjoyable to listen to, and would recommend it to anyone enjoys the music of, say, Dave Brubeck or others of that ilk.

In fact, the only aspect of the recording I found unpleasant, I’m sorry to say, is some of the playing of Richard Stoltzman. A highly active and much admired musician with exceedingly broad interests, he has certainly earned a good deal of respect. But I found the jazz-based inflections of his playing often grating, piercing, and strident. This is not because I am allergic to jazz-style clarinet-playing in general; there is something about Stoltzman’s playing here that is too close for comfort, and had me leaping to turn down the volume repeatedly. Beckman’s own playing is fine, and, I must admit, he praises Stoltzman’s contribution to the skies.

The “enhanced” CD includes more information about the participants—but no birthdates—and a study score of the music. 

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano. In February. Gemini. Slow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music. String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and PianoIn February. GeminiSlow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music ● IonSound Project (Peggy Yoo [fl], Kathleen Costello [cl], Eliseo Rael [perc], Laura Motchalov [vn], Elisa Kohanski [vc], Rob Frankenberry [pn]); Margaret Baube Andraso (sop) ● INNOVA 797 (69:21)

BECK String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5 ● San Gabriel St Qt; Nevsky St Qt; Da Kappo St Qt ● INNOVA 867 (63:03)

These two discs provide a richly rewarding representation of the music of Jeremy Beck (b. 1960), with which I am making my first acquaintance. Having studied at the Mannes School, Duke, and Yale with such luminaries as Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick, among others, Beck has pursued a decidedly old-fashioned approach. Although the results are not strikingly individualistic by any means, his music is impressive for its thorough mastery of traditional craftsmanship, for its consistently engaging personality, and for some works that reveal considerable expressive depth. Of the eleven compositions represented here, not a single one is dismissible as unworthy, and all are heard in precise, polished performances that impose no compromise on the impressions they make. Beck is currently based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he maintains a law practice that probably enables him to compose without undue concern with the impact of his music in the marketplace.

The pieces on both discs are drawn from the same period—roughly 1980 through 2010—which essentially spans Beck’s creative life, but each offers music of somewhat different character. The first disc features the IonSound Project, a mixed sextet with whom Beck became acquainted during a year he spent as visiting professor at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. In residence at the University of Pittsburgh, the ensemble became enamored of his music, and this recording grew out of that relationship. September Music (2002) was the first piece performed by the ensemble, while In Flight Until Mysterious Night (2009) was composed specifically for this recording.

Most of the pieces on the earlier recording display a largely diatonic musical language, with a mild degree of dissonance, not unlike the populist musical language of Aaron Copland, but without drawing upon obvious “Americanisms.” Nevertheless the music reveals its national origin unmistakably through its pert and lively, syncopated rhythms. I would describe its style, within my own frame of reference, as exuberantly neo-classical. Thus his music might be said to resemble that of, say, Robert Baksa or Rick Sowash. However, Beck’s music is built upon a structural foundation that is considerably more elaborate and dense than theirs, and thus leaves a much deeper impression. In that sense, though not in surface sound, it calls to mind the two piano trios of Patrick Zimmerli, about which I enthused several years ago (Fanfare 29:4) and which made my 2006 Want List. Like Zimmerli, Beck writes what a certain type of listener would call “real music:” that is, essentially, music composed according to the formal principles modeled by Brahms (not that either composer’s music “sounds like” him). This gives Beck’s music a strength and substance not generally encountered among the more recent avatars of traditionalism. It also means that, regardless of the catchy titles of the pieces on the first disc, the music is thoroughly abstract, and would be no less attractive (though perhaps harder to remember) with purely generic titles (as on the second disc). Yet for the most part, their appealing surface and thorough craftsmanship make them infectious and very likeable.

I could discuss each piece individually, but while they are not carbon copies of each other by any means, they embody a certain aesthetic that the reader of the previous paragraph will be able to identify in relation to his own predilections. Nevertheless, so as not to shirk my responsibility altogether, I will note that I found the Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano (1988) to be the most impressive work on the disc, its character somewhat more serious than the cheerful exuberance of most of the other pieces, with a contrapuntal developmental texture that I suspect would have met with Brahms’s enthusiastic approval. In February is a vocal work set to the composer’s own text. Here I found the poem’s irony and ambivalence not matched by the straightforwardness of the music’s character. Beck notes that Slow Motion,for vibraphone and piano, was inspired by the music of jazz artists Gary Burton and Chick Corea, and their influence is easily detected in this delightful piece. Third Delphic Hymn, originally composed for viola solo in 1980, is the earliest piece presented here, written during Beck’s first year as an undergraduate at the Mannes College of Music. He rearranged it for violin solo in 2003. The title is a reference to the earliest known examples of written music. As a piece for an unaccompanied string instrument, it is brief enough to be effective rather than grating.

The second CD features four string quartets performed by three different ensembles. These are extremely solid works that cut deeper than most of the pieces on the first disc. While still largely diatonic, the contrapuntal lines produce a somewhat higher degree of vertical dissonance, and the sense of tonality is less obvious. They are thoroughly abstract, making them difficult to describe without resorting to the sort of structural play-by-play that is of virtually no interest to anyone first becoming acquainted with the music. (The liner notes fall into this trap, although—admittedly—what else is there to say?) But the music, while perhaps less appealing on first hearing, is no less impressive, and displays no less mastery in its presentation of expressive substance conveyed with consummate craftsmanship. Although they are more introspective compositions, with less overt resemblance to other, more familiar works, they offer the kinds of rewards that most traditional listeners expect from the string quartet genre. All four quartets (one wonders about the absent Quartet No. 3) are gratifying works, although No. 2 is perhaps a bit less successful in holding the listener’s attention. They receive generally excellent performances by the three different ensembles. While perhaps not as immediately ingratiating as the first disc, it is not one iota less impressive, and I expect that these quartets will prove to be increasingly rewarding with greater familiarity. I hope that at some point Beck’s music will receive the recognition that it deserves. I gather that he has also a number of operas to his credit, and I am curious to see and hear them.

BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies

BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies ● Nicolas Kruger (pn); Salomé Haller (sop); Christophe Crapez (ten); Didier Henry (bar) ● MAGUELONE MAG 111.178 (enhanced CD, 61:30)

I have had recordings of major works—symphonies, an oratorio, et al.—by Henry Barraud (1900-1997) for many years. These works have led me to the conclusion that Barraud was one of the foremost French symphonic composers of the 20th century. From the standpoint of context, he was a near-contemporary of Francis Poulenc, but lacked that composer’s inclinations in the direction of wit and irony. Poulenc’s music may be more distinctive, but Barraud’s often has more substance and depth. He is seen more accurately as a descendent of the robust, serious-toned music of Florent Schmitt, Louis Aubert, and, perhaps, Arthur Honegger. During his lifetime Barraud was an important figure in French musical life, as a member of various composer’s organizations but, most notably, as director of the ORTF for many years. Hence I have long been dismayed that none of his major works (and only a few minor ones) have ever appeared on compact disc. So when I discovered this new release, which features the composer’s grandson as pianist (and annotator) in the performance of six Impromptus for piano and five song cycles, I was excited to get hold of it, even if these aren’t the large orchestral works I might have preferred.

Having acquainted myself with the disc, I find myself a little disappointed—not by the music or the performances, but by the presentation. Yes, of course it would have been nice to have some major orchestral works, but I know that economic factors are often prohibitive. And the music here is all first-rate, if less ambitious in its scope. The six Impromptus are very well-wrought essays in a familiar post-Debussian idiom. However, if one selects No. 3, one will have a taste of the kind of emotional depth of which Barraud was capable. But the biggest disappointment involves production values. As pianist, Nicolas Kruger provides fine, tasteful performances.

But his essay, presented in French and English, is quite brief and discusses only the Impromptus. Although there is plenty of information about the featured soloists, there is no information whatsoever regarding the song cycles that comprise the majority of the recording. The sung texts may be accessed by placing the CD into the disk drive of a PC, but they are in French only. And, as I discovered after several hours of fruitless research, information about the texts is not readily available, especially in English, and translations seem to be non-existent. Perhaps the French feel that any cultivated aesthete ought to be fluent in their language, but times have changed, and this is no longer to be taken for granted. And your reviewer is one of those who does not boast such fluency. Perhaps this deficiency should have disqualified me from reviewing the disc, but I wanted the opportunity to advocate on behalf of the composer. But it will unfortunately limit the specificity and depth of my own comments on songs that are clearly closely tailored to their texts.

The earliest—and perhaps the most challenging songs to appreciate—are the Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy, which date from 1933. They are sung by tenor Christophe Crapez, who brings an attractive voice and fine artistry to his renditions. These songs are inward in tone, with music that is rather angular and relatively austere; the last, “Un homme fini,” is especially compelling. Next in chronology are the Chansons de Gramadoch, set to Victor Hugo texts in 1935. These, sung sensitively by baritone Didier Henry, seem to refer back to an “olden” style with simpler, lighter textures. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné date from 1938, and feature soprano Salomé Haller. All three of these settings are excellent—the second, in particular, is almost a French “patter-song” with a slightly Eastern-European flavor, providing a considerable challenge to soprano Salomé Haller, who acquits herself with grace and aplomb. Quatre mélodies were composed in 1942, to poems by Lanza del Vasto, and feature baritone Didier Henry, who again proves himself a persuasive advocate. These are powerful, penetrating songs, not unlike the late songs of Samuel Barber. The latest group comprises Huit Chantefables pour les enfants sages, composed in 1947, and they appear to be Barraud’s best known song cycle. Animal fables, they are based on witty, satirical verses by Robert Desnos. All three vocal soloists contribute to this group. Unlike the serious, introspective musical expression found in most of the other songs, these are generally light-hearted and clever. “L’Aligator” even comes close to paraphrasing Gershwin.

Listeners fluent in French and well-versed in French literature will probably derive a deeper appreciation of these songs than I did, and I believe that those who value the French mèlodie will be quite impressed if they are unfamiliar with Barraud’s contributions to the genre. As noted, the performances are excellent, although I found the sonic balance between voice and piano to place the latter too far in the background. This new release appears to be directed chiefly toward the French market, which is a pity, as Barraud was a composer of international stature. From my own perspective, despite my linguistic limitations, I found all the music on this CD to be exquisitely subtle, masterly, and rewarding on a variety of different levels. My wish is now for a recording of some of Barraud’s larger, more ambitious scores.